Two recent awful animal-cruelty cases are moving toward resolutions in courtrooms.
A teenager accused of dousing a Jack Russell terrier with lighter fluid and setting the puppy on fire was indicted Wednesday on a felony count of aggravated animal cruelty, and the teenager who admitted acting as a lookout has already pleaded guilty to the same charge.
In another case, a grand jury sent a misdemeanor animal-cruelty charge to City Court for a Buffalo man who allegedly drove several blocks with his pit bull terrier, Gotti, leashed to the back of his sport utility vehicle.
The prison sentence for the felony conviction, at most, is two years. The misdemeanor count carries a maximum one-year jail term.
When asked if the punishments fit such crimes, a couple of local leaders said no.
“People may ask, ‘How come setting an animal on fire is the lowest felony? How come dragging a dog through city streets is only a misdemeanor?’ ” said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.
“Anybody who engages in such behavior, if proven in a court of law, is twisted. And they should be appropriately punished. My problem is I can only enforce the laws the way these laws are written. I can’t enforce them the way I wish they were written.”
Sedita said the punishment for someone who deliberately burns a dog should be more severe than two years in prison.
An animal welfare leader wants to make it easier to prosecute animal-abuse cases as felonies, to keep some extreme incidents from turning into misdemeanor cases because prosecutors fear they may not be able to prove intent.
“We have a good judicial system that takes animal cruelty seriously,” said Barbara S. Carr, executive director of the SPCA Serving Erie County. But to win a felony conviction, a prosecutor has to prove an offender intended to kill or seriously injure an animal, Carr said.
“It’s pretty darned hard to prove intent, unless someone says I meant to hurt that dog, or they wrote it down,” she said.
To win a misdemeanor conviction, a prosecutor only has to prove that the person killed or seriously injured the animal, she said.
Carr wants the law changed so that offenders can be successfully prosecuted on felony charges without prosecutors having to prove intent.
Tuesday, Diondre L. Brown, 17, who admitted that he acted as a lookout, pleaded guilty to the highest charge for which he could have been convicted, Sedita said.
A grand jury indicted the other teen, Adell Ziegler, 19, on a felony animal-cruelty count for the case in which 5-month-old Phoenix was doused with lighter fluid and set on fire.
Prosecutors said Ziegler poured lighter fluid on the puppy and set him ablaze.
The dog has survived two rounds of surgery and will have more today, but a veterinarian caring for the dog has said he’s doing remarkably well, even though it had to have much of both his ears amputated and could lose a leg because of a bone infection.
In the other case, Daniel Delaney Jr., 36, was jailed following the Oct. 6 incident in which he is accused of dragging his dog several blocks while the animal was leashed to his vehicle. Delaney has since signed 2-year-old Gotti over to the SPCA. It was adopted about three weeks ago, Carr said.
Delaney faces a one-year jail sentence if convicted of the misdemeanor.
As for Brown, who pleaded guilty Tuesday, he could be sentenced to as long as two years in prison. But he may avoid a prison term if he continues to cooperate with prosecutors.
Erie County Judge Kenneth F. Case has indicated he may grant youthful-offender status to Brown, based on the recommendation of the District Attorney’s Office.
“He didn’t get a reduced plea,” Sedita said. “That’s the most we could have convicted him for in a trial.”
Prosecutors recommended youthful-offender status for Brown because his involvement in the crime was relatively minimal, Sedita said.
“He acted as the lookout; whereas Mr. Ziegler, we believe, is the principal actor,” Sedita said.
Also, Brown has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
“And given his pronounced and severe psychiatric trauma he has gone through, I felt it was appropriate,” Sedita said of the youthful-offender recommendation.
In a recent telephone interview from the Erie County Holding Center, Brown told The Buffalo News that Ziegler, his uncle, was entirely responsible for taking the puppy into the backyard of a drug house at about 4:45 p.m. Oct. 29 and trying to burn the animal to death.
“I was telling him to stop. Why do you have to kill the dog?” Brown said.
Brown told The News he had nothing to do with the torture and said he tried to stop Ziegler from doing it.
Asked by The News why his uncle told police Brown was responsible for setting the dog on fire, Brown said, “Because he’s already got felony [convictions] and doesn’t want that kind of [prison] time on him.”
In the Delaney case, the grand jury filed one count of overdriving, torturing and injuring animals and failure to provide proper sustenance, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
According to medical experts, Gotti did not suffer the kind of serious physical injury required under state law to support a felony charge, Sedita said.
Gotti suffered abrasions and lost layers of skin from his paws but is expected to make a full recovery, Sedita said.